Movie review: “December Boys”

Tonight we watched the “December Boys” (Wikipedia article), which stars Daniel Radcliffe. I’d never seen him in any other role than Harry Potter, but was pleasantly surprised. The movie was shot in Australia during 2007, and is based on a book of the same title.

It’s the story of four young boys who grow up in an orphanage in the Outback, run by Catholic nuns (nice ones, for a change). They all have their birthdays during December – which is why they are called “the December Boys”. One December, they are given a special present: a trip to the sea, to a beautiful cove (whose name I’ve forgotten, but I think it was made up anyway) on the west coast of Australia.

The eldest and biggest of the boys is Maps, played by Daniel Radcliffe; he was 16 when the movie was made, in a gap between The Goblet of Fire and The Order of the Phoenix. Spark is a cute one, with big brown eyes and tousled hair. He is probably the naughtiest of the four, as we see him looking through well-thumbed black-and-white lingerie ads – goodness knows where he got them from! The appropriately named Spit is a bit feisty (and he made my stomach churn…, but I won’t go into the details!). Misty, who wears glasses, is the youngest and the most religious, having various visions of nuns doing odd things. He is well-behaved, and desperate to be adopted.

The movie is framed (introduced and concluded) by the voice of Misty as an older man, looking back to their magical summer at the cove.

All in all, it was a beautiful movie, and although it was a bit slow-moving, once I just allowed it to unfold and immersed myself in the story, I really enjoyed it. It took me a while to realise why, in the early part of the movie, I felt like I was floundering. I suddenly realised that it was an AUSTRALIAN film, rather than an American, British or South African one. I know it sounds a bit obvious… but I will try to explain.

I suppose we are so used to watching Hollywood movies, or even British and South African movies, that we tend to recognise from the music, or the way it’s shot, or the angles of the camera, or the speed of the action, or any other editing techniques, what kind of movie it will be, i.e. whether it will be a thriller, a spy or detective movie, a sci-fi, a love story, a drama, a horror, a documentary….

I realised that I was looking for recognisable signs, like a dramatic surge in the music to indicate a change in mood, or the camera focusing on something significant before drawing away, or it being made clear who was a good person or a bad person, or whether a character had hidden (bad) motivations…. 

But with December Boys, I kept mis-reading the signs… and I found myself floundering because I didn’t know how to ‘read’ the characters or the story. So at the beginning, I kept mis-reading things, expecting something bad or unexpected to happen… And when nothing did, I felt a bit let-down and confused. At the same time, I also felt relieved because the four boys are just such interesting and real characters, each with their own personalities and all sharing such an innocent hope and a longing to find the love and acceptance of a family, that I felt real empathy and compassion towards them. I didn’t want anything bad to happen to them.

I wonder whether the kind of short-hand that American movie-makers use (I’m probably generalising…) stops us from really seeing reality in all its complexity and depth… and I wonder whether we tend to jump to conclusions and to make split-second judgement calls about people, situations and places in reality too?

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For other movies we’ve watched in April, click on:

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